Album Review: Isles // Bicep

Bicep’s new release, Isles, finds Belfast’s cult hero duo prescribing some tonic for a rave-less world. Now based in London, Andrew Ferguson and Mathew McBriar first drew widespread attention for their esoteric ‘Feel My Bicep’ blog after forming in 2009. Since then it’s been a meteoric ascend to becoming household names for electronic music stans, particularly nostalgic 90s ravers and part-time DJ students enthusiasts. On their eponymous debut, Bicep, the duo thrilled with their modern takes on Chicago house, Detroit techno, trance and garage. In many ways, Isles picks up from where its predecessor left off. The melodic trance-infused formula for house music, which characterises the duo’s hardest hits, is left much unchanged.

Admittedly, the record starts slow. In a climate that has become far removed from a world of hours-on-end communal dancing, the repetitive chord progression and plodding, poppy melody of ‘Atlas’ takes some time to warm to. However, the vocal samples on the track manage to inject some ethereality into the record, hinting at spaces far removed from the present. Spaces where that very same rhythm transmuted through a mammoth speaker stack and vibrating through your spine might elicit a more enthusiastic reaction. Being the second longest running track on the record, ‘Atlas’ is a risky choice for an opener, and not one that completely pays off. Second track ‘Cazenove’ is equally bland, with a vocal hook stripped of the soulful quality that saved the album opener. Again, the melodic and chord progression choices are a little too minimalistic to be memorable or effective. Where Bicep’s debut thrilled with the gritty complexity they brought to simple ideas, its successor stutters and fumbles at its onset, with what could have been throwaway tracks from the previous release. 

Notwithstanding, once ‘Apricots’ cues in, however, the album starts to take shape. It is clear to see why it was chosen as lead single. Transient pads simmer around crushed and distorted kick-snare patterns, reminiscent of Bicep’s more successful records. The progressive structure is effective in using tension to build excitement; the beat expertly teases the percussive hook into a satisfying drop that feels like the first truly exciting moment of the record. The music video for the track features a DIY-style fast cut edit (in true post-pandemic fashion) and features an elusive mystery woman (played by Chloe Endean) juxtaposed with frenetic flashes of natural materials (rocks, flowers, grass etc.). With a sigh of relief, the clean palette sonic approach taken for this album becomes cohesive, competitive with the heavier appeal of Isles’ rugged older sibling. 

As the album finds its voice, it is helped in no small part by the featured vocals on the record, namely: Clara La San, who shines throughout. ‘X’  is a standout track on the LP; its crisp drum patterns overlap with a neatly syncopated synth melody to form an unashamedly danceable groove. Detuned metallic sounds invade open cracks within the rhythm sections and when the vocals sift in, the soft, hushed stanzas invite intimacy into what grows to become a hard-hitting floor-filler. Including Julia Kent and machìna, there are three features in total on the album, a novel choice for the self-starter duo. The collaborations are subtle and help in shaping the identity of Isles. For fans now left listening at home, the widespread use of muted, ambient vocals throughout makes for cosy listening. The remaining tracks continue in the same fashion growing in confidence and enjoyability, a truly thrilling web of sonic ideas. 

Ultimately, while too tentative to let go completely of the Bicep formula and explore uncharted waters, the album is playful enough to maintain the explosive legacy left by the duo’s brash debut. Isles is undeniably a proud addition to the Bicep catalogue and certainly helps mould a precocious identity for the veteran DJs in the modern scene. With time, the response from fans will test out the boundaries of the record in strobe-lit rooms and packed warehouses; there is a clear nod to this welcome reality in their compositional approach, and there is no doubt which tracks will hold their weight across the isles.

Words by Samm Anga


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